The Book Thief tells the touching and often tragic tale of Liesel, a young girl sent to live with foster parents in Germany during the turbulent rise of Hitler’s Third Reich.
Having already been touched by death, a withdrawn Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) struggles to adapt to life with her new parents: Rosa, a stern woman with a no-nonsense attitude, and her rather more carefree and endearing husband, Hans. When Hans discovers the illiterate Liesel with a stolen copy of The Grave Digger’s Handbook, he patiently teaches her to read – a kindly act that sparks a lifelong love affair with books.
As war engulfs her homeland, Liesel escapes into the books she finds (or steals) from those around her, but her life is soon further interrupted by the arrival of Max, a Jewish refugee who finds refuge in the household’s basement. The family does its best to appear normal to the outside world, but a series of tragic events will test Liesel’s courage and set her family on a course that could have devastating consequences.
Directed by Brian Percival and based on the novel of the same name by Australian author Markus Zusak, The Book Thief is a heart-warming story of a courageous young girl’s journey into womanhood amid the chaos of World War II.
Nelisse is brilliant as the frightened child forced to grow up quickly, and she handles the demands of this emotionally complex role with ease. The young actress’s beautifully expressive eyes hint at wisdom beyond her years, and this helps bring the usually soft-spoken Liesel to life.
English actress Emily Watson shines as Rosa, whom Liesel describes as “a woman cloaked in thunder”, while Australia’s Geoffrey Rush plays Hans, the kind-hearted and gentle foster father whose childlike sense of wonder enables him to immediately connect with Liesel and the audience. Ben Schnetzer delivers a heartfelt performance as Max, a young man whose unwavering belief in humanity and the beauty of the world – despite his own circumstances – is truly uplifting. It is Max who encourages Liesel to not only appreciate the beauty of the written word, but also to use those words to create beauty of her own.
Roger Allam adds a touch of irony to the story as the film’s narrator, Death, and it is through him that the audience gains an insight into Liesel’s incredible life. He also offers poignant observations of humanity and death’s own role within our lives.
The events of World War II are a confronting chapter in humanity’s history, and director Percival handles this emotional topic with great respect, expertly bringing to life Zusak’s touching tale of courage and kindness.
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